Has anyone ever told you to stop playing around and start acting like an adult? In our society, there is a widespread belief that children play and that adults work. But if fun and play disappear as we age, then life goes from an exciting adventure to a monotonous daily routine. It would mean that the day we are born is the best life will ever be and that it is all downhill from there. Must it be this way?
It is difficult to define play. It does not have a particular purpose. If the purpose of an action is more important than the act of doing it, then it is probably not play.1 In other words, play is a pleasurable activity undertaken for no apparent purpose. Some forms of play involve games or sports, while others involve skill-building. When you are truly engaged in play, you would never even know it because you are too focused on the fun you are having. The best way to understand play is to feel it. Think of a time when you were playing with a baby or playing fetch with a dog. That is the emotional sense we all have when we are truly engaged in play. Play is an optimal way for us, especially children, to learn new skills, it brings people together through sports and sporting events, and it is a vital component for loving relationships. Just imagine being in a relationship with absolutely no play. Plato once said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.”2
From an evolutionary standpoint, play is essential. Every animal species plays in one way or another.1 Japanese macaque monkeys make snowballs and roll them down hills, bison will repeatedly run onto frozen lakes and skate on all fours, and hippos in the water do backflips over and over again. Anything that’s done across many species must have an evolutionary benefit. Nature does not waste energy or resources on traits that are unnecessary for survival.
So how has play been advantageous for the survival and evolution of humans? It turns out that play might be the antidote for stress. The six leading causes of death are linked to stress.3 Dr. Hans Selye, who first popularized the term stress in the 1950’s, wrote, “An overwhelming stress (caused by prolonged starvation, worry, fatigue, or cold) can break down the body’s protective mechanism. It is for this reason that so many maladies tend to become rampant during wars and famines. If a microbe is in or around us all the time and yet causes no disease until we are exposed to a stress, what is the cause of our illness, the microbe or the stress? I think both are – and equally so.”4
Dr. Selye’s explanation of stress indicates that we are more susceptible to disease when we are stressed. Unfortunately, in our society, being stressed has become a metaphor for existence. Sometimes we have so many things to do that we don’t even know where to begin. We are no longer human beings, but human doings. When life becomes one giant to do list, there’s no time for play, and our emotional health suffers. Brian Sutton-Smith, a pioneer in play research, says, “the opposite of play is not work – it’s depression.”5
Most people would agree that play, as a form of exercise, is beneficial for our physical and mental health. In Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, MD, gives a disturbing overview of the lifespan of a sea squirt.1 The sea squirt starts its life as a tadpole. It cruises around the ocean, explores, finds nutrients, and is active—perhaps plays. Then it grows, matures, latches onto a reef, and it quits moving. Its life becomes purely passive; it becomes the couch potato of the sea. Since it is no longer actively engaged in life, it no longer needs a brain. Near the end of its life, it starts to eat its own brain! Humans are the same. As we age, our brain slowly degenerates, but when we stop moving, it degenerates at an accelerated rate. The basic principle here is “use it or lose it!”
The tale of the sea squirt also illustrates what happens when we are stuck in the same unchanging environment, not taking in any new information. In 1966, Dr. Marian Diamond studied two groups of mice.6 One group was placed in an enriched environment with lots of toys, levels, and unique spaces to play around in. The other group was placed in an open box with nothing to play with. She found that the mice in the enriched environment had increased glial cell activation, which means new brain cells were being generated. They also scored better on cognitive performance tests.
Animals and children learn many of their motor and social skills through play. Many studies show that child development thrives on play.7 In fact, play and guided play offers strong support for academic and social learning. Comparisons of preschools that use playful child-centered approaches, versus less playful more teacher-directed approaches, reveal that children in the child-centered approaches do better in reading, language, writing, and mathematics. The science is in, play is essential for life. Plato knew this when he said, “Our children from their earliest years, must take part in all the more lawful forms of play, for if they are not surrounded with such an atmosphere, they can never grow up to be well conducted and virtuous citizens.”8
A common side effect of play is laughter. Whoever said, “laughter is the best medicine,” got it absolutely right. Laughter strengthens the immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress.9 In Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins accounts how he overcame a degenerative collagen disease using, among other things, self-prescribed laughter therapy.10 Cousin’s writings show that cultivating strong positive emotional states through humor and not taking yourself so seriously have a major therapeutic benefit in the healing process.
Although play is essential for our development and health, we have an ambivalence toward it. As we age, it seems more difficult to introduce play, especially when we are caught up in the things we need to do, the places we need to go, and the people we need to see. So how can we change that? It takes discipline. It’s not going to be handed to us. Making time to engage in play is something we work on. Like any skill, the best way to work on play is to start off small; no need to join a competitive water polo league, at least not yet. It could be as simple as belting out your favourite song in the shower as if no one were listening or digging out the old baseball glove and playing catch with a friend.
The paradox of play is that it recharges us, it refreshes us, and it rejuvenates us. When we go back to work, we do it even better. What we thought would take four hours only took 45 minutes. When we don’t make time for play, we get stressed, sick, and burned out. Moreover, we become too serious, and life seems joyless. Humans, like all species, need play. It is not a childish activity. It is essential to our health and wellbeing. To conclude, I will share another Plato quote. He said, “Life must be lived as play.”2
Edited by Emma Syron & Emily Mastragostino
- Brown, S.L. Play : how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul, (Avery, New York, 2010).
- Plato. Symposium: “Life must be lived as play”, (Scribe Publishing, 2017).
- Hartz-Seely, D.S. Chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death. (Miami Herald, 2014).
- Selye, H. The general adaptation syndrome and the diseases of adaptation. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 6, 117-230 (1946).
- Sutton-Smith, B. The ambiguity of play, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2009).
- Diamond, M.C., et al. Increases in cortical depth and glia numbers in rats subjected to enriched environment. J Comp Neurol 128, 117-126 (1966).
- Smith, P.K. & Pellegrini, A. Learning through play. (Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development, 2013).
- Plato. The Republic, (Penguin Classics, 2014).
- Robinson, L., et al. Laughter is the best medicine. (HelpGuide, 2020).
- Cousins, N. Anatomy of an illness as perceived by the patient : reflections on healing and regeneration, (Bantam Books, Toronto, 1981).